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Indeed, one of the characteristics of Medan Chinese is speaking in a very specific Hokkien language. Perhaps, in this world there are only two places that use the Hokkien language with such a distinctive accent, namely Medan and Penang, Malaysia.

One of the main characteristics of Medan Chinese is speaking the very distinctive Hokkien language. But, who are the Medan Chinese?

Medan Chinese, of course, are Chinese people who were born and raised in Medan. Then, what about the Chinese who live in other cities in North Sumatra such as Tebing Tinggi, Pematang Siantar, Kisaran, Tanjung Balai, Rantau Prapat, Brastagi, or Binjai, Stabat, Tanjung Pura and Pangkalan Brandan?

Chinese born in cities in North Sumatra, who often come into contact with Medan City and have a Medan "soul", can be categorized as Medan Chinese, regardless of whether they claim to be Medanese or not. On the other hand, Medan-born Chinese who grew up outside Medan and do not have emotional similarities, even though they bear the title of Medan Chinese, they are not "original Medan" people.

One of the characteristics of Medan Chinese is mastering and speaking Medan-style Hokkien everyday. Therefore, one of the benchmarks for whether a person has a "label” as Medan Chinese is by looking at his ability to master the Medan Hokkien language. Generally, the ethnic Chinese living in cities in North Sumatra which are far from Medan do not master the language.

In Sibolga, for example, the ethnic Chinese use Indonesian in their daily communication. Most of them do not speak Chinese, both Hokkien and Mandarin, and are more familiar with the local language. It is common there to see the ethnic Chinese able to speak Tapanuli fluently. Indeed there are those who can speak Hokkien, but there are not many and are limited to residents who often go back and forth between Sibolga-Medan.

The ethnic Chinese in Sibolga who are fluent in Hokkien are generally ethnic Chinese, ex-Bagan Siapi-api, Riau. However, the Hokkien accent they use is generally "distorted" and sounds strange to the ears of the Medan Chinese. The Hokkien language of Bagan Siapi-api is indeed a typical "hai kha" (sea/ coastal people) language, including Panipahan, Sei Berombang, Tanjung Ledong and the surrounding area. Although similar, the Hokkien language in these coastal areas each has a different accent.


Interestingly, in several cities adjacent to Medan, the ethnic Chinese have their own language in conversation in their environment, even though they are fluent in the Hokkien language typical of Medan.

One example is Siantar, the second largest city in North Sumatra, which is about 128 kilometers from Medan and can be reached in approximately 2.5 hours by road. The local Chinese do not use Medan Hokkien in their community. Everyday they tend to use the “Siantar Chinese” language, which is Mandarin whose accent has been modified to be typical of Siantar.

After all, all Chinese Siantar master Medan Hokkien and use it outside their own community. It means. when the Chinese Siantar communicate with each other, they use the typical Mandarin of their area. But when interacting with the Medan Chinese, they always use Hokkien. One thing is for sure, the characteristics of the Medanese are quite strong for most of the Siantar Chinese, regardless of their willingness to accept the label as Medan Chinese or not.

In Berastagi, a tourist city with cool air, about 66 kilometers from Medan, the Chinese community there uses the Tiociu language in their daily life. The Tiociu ethnic group dominates the ethnic Chinese in Berastagi. No wonder other tribes such as Hokkien, Khek or Cantonese in Brastagi also use the Tiociu language. But when they come down to Medan and interact with fellow Chinese who are not from Berastagi, they converse in Hokkien.

Specific mother tongues are also found in Kuala Simpang (Aceh Tamiang), Nanggroe Aceh Darussalam. In this city, which is about 135 kilometers from Medan, ethnic Chinese communicate with each other using the local Chinese language, which is similar to the Siantar Mandarin dialect. In the city, almost all Chinese ethnic can speak Hokkien.

Likewise with Langsa, which is included in the East Aceh region, a neighboring city which is 32 kilometers from Kuala Simpang. Due to the relative distance from Medan City, the average ethnic Chinese there are able to speak Medan-style Hokkien.

The Chinese ethnic in Kuala Simpang and Langsa often visit Medan City for various purposes. Many of them, some of whose families have moved, live in Medan. In fact, most of their children are sent to school in Medan, because they think that the quality of education in the North Sumatra capital is better. Equally important, their children can grow up among Chinese ethnic and have a more secure future in a big city.

But from Lhokseumawe City (North Aceh) to Banda Aceh and Meulaboh (West Aceh), the Chinese there use Khek as their everyday language. In this area, most of the ethnic Chinese are Khek. The use of the Khek language is also found among the Chinese from the Hokkien and other tribes, because the Khek language has indeed become the dominant mother tongue and is controlled by all the Chinese tribes there.

Almost all ethnic Chinese who have lived in Aceh for decades, especially from North Aceh to Banda Aceh do not master the Hokkien language. They master the Acehnese language better than Hokkien. In Aceh, it is common for the Chinese ethnic to speak fluent Acehnese.

Some of those who frequently interact with Medan Chinese master Hokkien passively, meaning they can understand a little and speak stuttering. Only a small percentage of them are actually able to speak Hokkien.

While in many cities in Aceh the ethnic Chinese use the Khek language, in Medan only the ethnic Chinese consisting of the Khek tribe can speak the Khek language and use it at home and among other Khek people. Likewise with other tribes: the Cantonese use the Cantonese language, the Tiociu use the Tiociu language, the Lokhong use the Lokhong language. But in the environment of fellow ethnic Chinese who are various tribes, all communicate in Hokkien.

Hokkien is the daily language of instruction among the Medan Chinese, because their number is indeed the largest compared to other tribes. History shows that overseas Chinese who immigrated to Southeast Asia, including Indonesia and Medan, the majority came from the Fujian (Hokkien) province.

In addition to Fujian, Hokkien is also spoken in several areas in the provinces of Guangdong and Hainan in mainland China. Hokkien is also widely spoken in Taiwan, along with Mandarin. Not to be missed in Singapore and Malaysia where the Hokkien community is domiciled. However, the Hokkien language spoken in these countries has a very different accent from Medan, with the exception of Pulau Pinang alias Penang, Malaysia.

The existence of the Hokkien language in Indonesia has definitely reached the age of more than a century. It is even suspected that a number of words in Hokkien contributed to enriching the Indonesian vocabulary, for example the word “loteng (attic)” actually comes from the Hokkien word “lau teng”, “beca (pedicab)” comes from the word “be chia (horse carriage)”, “rantang (tiffin carrier)” comes from the word “lan tang”, “kawin (marry)” from the word “kau in”, etc.


Indeed, speaking the very specific Hokkien language is indeed a characteristic of Medan Chinese. If in its home country, the Hokkien language has several accent variants, then the Hokkien language used in this city has a typical Medan accent.

Perhaps, in this world there are only two places that use the Hokkien language with such a distinctive accent and dialect, namely Medan and Penang. The similarity between Medan Hokkien and Penang Hokkien is caused by the two communities having the same family roots, where the early generation of ethnic Chinese in Medan partly came from Penang. In other parts of Malaysia, including Kuala Lumpur, Hokkien is spoken sporadically with a distinct accent from Penang.

In addition to their distinctive accent, the uniqueness of the Medan and Penang Hokkien languages ​​involves their mixed vocabulary with Malay.

In the world, there is no Hokkien saying "mana u?" except in Medan. "Mana u" means "mana ada (there’s nothing)", where the word “mana” is taken from the Indonesian language. Also the sentence “wa ngantuk liau”, which means "saya sudah ngantuk (I'm already sleepy)". Many Medan Chinese don't even know what Hokkien is for “sleepy”. What is known is that the word “sleepy” is called "ai khun", which means “going to sleep”. Medan Chinese also refer to bananas as “pisang”. Some of them don't know that bananas in Hokkien are called “kin cio”.

Almost all Medan Chinese do not master all the vocabulary in Hokkien, because of that their Hokkien is a "mixed" Hokkian language with Indonesian or Malay. For example, the words “tapi” and “rupanya” are spoken almost every day. It is almost certain that the Medan Chinese will be in trouble if they communicate with Chinese from Singapore, Taiwan or China whose Hokkien language is still original and heavy.

In some areas on the Sumatra island, there are still Chinese communities who speak Hokkien, but the accent is different from that of Medan Hokkien. In Pekanbaru, for example, to know whether an ethnic Chinese is from Medan or not, it is enough to hear the Hokkien language he speaks.

The "island" Chinese, as Pekanbaru Chinese are called, who come from Bengkalis Island, Selatpanjang or Bagansiapi-api, speak Hokkien with a very different accent. It is not surprising that in the communication between the Medan Chinese and the "island" Chinese in Pekanbaru, many prefer to communicate in Indonesian rather than Hokkien.

In contrast to the ethnic Chinese on the Java island, who no longer speak their ancestral language, in Medan the Hokkien language is a hereditary tradition that most Chinese families continue to cultivate. From generation to generation the Hokkien language has been passed down as the mother tongue, "enriching" the variety of regional languages ​​that are "criss crossing" in Medan City.

Indeed, Medan is a multi-ethnic city where no single ethnic group is truly the majority and culturally dominant. All ethnic groups have sufficient numbers to build their respective communities and traditions, including in terms of using their mother tongue at home and among other ethnic groups. The Batak speak Batak, Karo speak Karo, Minang speak Minang, Aceh speak Aceh, Nias speak Nias, and Javanese speak Javanese.

This is also done by many Medan Chinese, without even feeling the slightest bit uncomfortable because they are used to it. In crowded places, fellow Chinese speak Hokkien freely and effortlessly. In fact, when they gather with other ethnic groups in a meeting, in the midst of talking in Indonesian with other people, they can suddenly speak Hokkien when the conversation turns to each other.

We can accuse the ethnic Chinese in Medan of not being nationalists or other accusations for this custom, but they practice their mother tongue habit without having anything to do with national issues or not respecting the national language. For them, speaking Hokkien in front of other ethnicities is a natural thing. After all, other ethnic groups also practice the same thing.

However, speaking Indonesian in public is a solution to narrow the distance between the Medan Chinese and other ethnic groups. Moreover, for certain people, Hokkien is considered a "foreign language", while other regional languages ​​still have "Indonesian nuances".


In fact, apart from conversations between ethnic groups, Indonesian has indeed become the main language of almost all Medan Chinese, especially those aged 50 and under. For most of them, Indonesian is the only language they can speak orally and in writing. They read and write in Indonesian.

Only a small number of people actively master Mandarin, then pass it on to their children. In order to facilitate the Mandarin that is taught since childhood, they usually always talk to their children in Mandarin. The number of those who passively master Mandarin is quite large, but it is a secondary language that is not used regularly, just like English.

In the next few years, more and more Medan Chinese will actively master Mandarin, following the lifting of the ban on Chinese characters during the reign of Abdurrahman Wahid alias Gus Dur.

In national private schools where the majority of students are Chinese, Mandarin is now officially taught and included in the curriculum. In addition to studying at school, many Chinese students are taking Mandarin language lessons either in courses or by bringing teachers to their homes. This is because Mandarin with its kanji is considered difficult to learn.

Moreover, many of them previously had no basis at all. However, this will not reduce the dominance of the Indonesian language in their daily lives, just like other ethnic groups in Medan.

One thing that the public is not aware of is that more and more Medan Chinese parents are no longer communicating in Hokkien with their children. Since childhood the children are only taught to speak in Indonesian. Some are added to Mandarin and English, especially in families where the parents are intellectuals.

Over the past few years, with the increasing number of plus level schools in Medan that use English as the language of instruction, in public places many little Medan Chinese children communicate with their parents and friends in English. Their interest in foreign languages ​​such as English and Mandarin certainly does not make them ignore Indonesian.

It should be noted that the younger generation of Medan Chinese are people who can speak Indonesian fluently. In fact, almost all middle-aged Medan Chinese, perhaps with the exception of the elderly, speak Indonesian with the correct accent. In fact, their Indonesian language is relatively "better and more original" than that spoken by Javanese Chinese, which are generally mixed with the Betawi language.

Perhaps, the Medan Chinese appreciation of the Indonesian language amidst the habit of using their mother tongue in their own community, will remain one of the characteristics of the Medan Chinese.

Photo by Halim Kosasi on Unsplash


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